Enslavers. I have been teaching American History for a decade and a half and never thought to teach with that word. I have just used the terms as written in the standards – plantation owners or planter elites. Enslavers is more honest and, at first is harder to say in front of people. The choice to not say it comes from a place of privilege and is a silent acceptance of the white supremacist language of the Lost Cause. What you permit, you promote.
Around 2015 I realized I needed to reevaluate my class. I had always thought of myself as fairly progressive in the classroom but incidents in the runup to the 2016 election made me question what my role was in fighting racism and misogyny and how much of that I had ignorantly permitted. I made a conscious effort to open myself to new voices and began focusing on these issues. It was quickly apparent that I needed to change to become a better ally to my students and colleagues.
None of this is intended to pat my own back – I’m certain that I still have a lot to learn and change. Instead it is meant as a means to hold myself and fellow teachers accountable for what we do in the classroom. The overwhelming disproportionate majority of teachers in this country are white and we all have blind spots to our biases. As I tell me History students don’t get caught up on that term. Saying one is bias is not an attack but rather an acknowledgement that we all bring individual points of view to our assumptions about the world and we need to account for them. A few months ago I was excited to share Dr. Vonn, my new narrative Big Bad, with my #XPLAP friends. I borrowed a few cartoon images of the Batman villain the “Black Mask” – a white character in a Black skull mask – as the character’s visual representation. A colleague politely pointed out the problematic nature of this image which had completely fell in my blindspot. I appreciated the private contact and immediately recognized the problem and made the change.
Learning, reflection, and growth toward creating an equitable and inclusive classroom is a life long process and it is up to put in the work and hold each other accountable. I have been trying to fix the holes in my curriculum and part of that has been to change some of the language used to describe the past.
A few of my language guides (examples follow)
- Enslavers instead of masters, plantation owners, planter elites
Remove Dehumanizing Language
- Enslaved People instead of slaves. Calling someone a slave implies that is their sole purpose and removes agency.
Be Careful with terms that could induce Trauma
- Lynching is a word that is necessary to know but could cause harm.
Avoid words with Hidden Meaning
- United States Soldiers instead of Union Soldiers, North, or Blue. The latter phrases hide the true nature of secession by implying that the Confederacy was a legitimate part of the United States. Secessionists instead of rebels or Southerners does the same thing.
Watch out for Misogynistic Wording
- “folks” or “y’all” instead of guys. Closing class by saying “guys” centers the male gender and subtly hints at some feminine inferiority.
- Eliminate saying non-white and instead use terms for the specific group being referenced. I had to do this with American Imperialism. Instead of saying “non-white island nations” I began referring to the Puerto Ricans, Hawaiians, Filipinos and others.This forced me to learn more about their experience rather than simply tell the story of a government policy dominated by white male politicians.
The thing is language changes all the time as the context changes. This is not “wokism” or “political correctness”. These terms implies some nefarious political indoctrination. No, as a History teacher the goal is to be precise and tell an authentic story that humanizes the people that we are trying to understand. It is also important to listen to voices that have been traditionally underrepresented. The reason that a term like Southern Rebels was accepted rather than Secessionists is because a false historical narrative called the Lost Cause was pushed by white leaders of the Jim Crow era, accepted by a white population seeking to “reconcile”, and then taught to young Americans throughout the 20th century. The language of this myth allowed people with political power to erase southern Black and Unionist voices from the record. In the last few decades as that stranglehold on culture and power has diminished those underrepresented voices have highlighted the ways in which the false narrative was supported by the language.
Our school standards have been slow to adapt to new scholarship, whether by design or ignorance. It is up to us teachers to use our language to tell an accurate story that illuminates and humanizes our studies rather than words that hide the truth behind attractive illusions.